by Deborah Brautigam
Oxford University Press, 2009, 300 pp., $29.95
While the emergence of China as a global power has been met in the main by a determinedly non-confrontational response, Africa is one front where the rhetoric has been less restrained. There some local politicians and international observers have accused China, the erstwhile anti-colonial champion, of harboring barely concealed imperialist ambitions. “China is building a lot of infrastructure—presumably to help it procure all the natural resources its firms are gobbling up”, reports the Economist. “You recruit Chinese doctors and they end up having Chinese restaurants in town”, charged Michael Sata, the Zambian presidential candidate who fell only 3 percent short of winning that country’s 2008 election. “They are just flooding the country with human beings instead of investment. . . . If we leave them unchecked, we will regret it. China is sucking from us.”
The stakes are large. Indeed, the seemingly sudden arrival onto the scene of a new player who flouts the established rules introduces what amounts to an alternate reality to the whole complex of relationships that defines the politics of development. China’s presence in Africa constitutes a fascinating and hugely important natural experiment as to how international engagement can most effectively support development on that continent. The stakes do not end there, however. After centuries of colonial and post-colonial engagement with Western countries, Africa is now in flux as a geopolitical sphere of influence, a fact with potentially far-reaching implications for the complexion of the 21st-century world.
Deborah Brautigam’s superb book The Dragon’s Gift offers a window into how China’s foray into Africa is playing out on the ground. Rich in vivid anecdotes and informed by the author’s three decades of academic work on both China and Africa, the book does many things, and does them all well. It describes how Chinese engagement in Africa has evolved, identifies its drivers, and assays its emerging impact on both economics and governance in nearly two dozen African states. It also looks behind the noble-minded rhetoric to the realities of aid-giving—Western as well as Chinese. The result is a fresh and compelling assessment of China in Africa with a counterintuitive bottom line. The Chinese approach, argues Brautigam, is less outside the development industry mainstream, more promising for Africa, and more risky for China than is generally perceived.Into Africa, with Chinese Characteristics
China’s economic engagement in Africa repeatedly makes headlines both for its massive scale and for the seemingly heterodox nature of the institutional arrangements that underpin it. In 2006, for example, the Nigerian government and the Chinese Railway Construction Corporation signed an...